More downtown Lafayette apartments, condos needed | Business

During his 90-minute presentation last month on making Lafayette more walkable, national city planner and author Jeff Speck paused twice to point out what he thought was a great opportunity.

While he had the attention of the nearly packed auditorium at the Acadiana Center for the Arts, Speck identified the empty property across from The Lofts at the Municipal Apartments as being prime for a residential project.

Why? Mostly because the Buchanan Street parking garage — building a parking garage can drive up the cost of a project by 30% — is already there.

Downtown Lafayette can expect more residential units, and that’s a good place to start.

“The parking lot, I’m told, is half full and probably overnight it’s empty,” Speck said. “This is money in the bank for a developer who wants to put wants to put housing here without parking. So you should be locating new housing within a block or so.”

Residential continues to be a hot topic in downtown Lafayette and will be the topic of the Lunch N Learn event at noon Tuesday hosted by Downtown Lafayette Unlimited at the Downtown Convention Center, 124 S. Buchanan St.

Laurie Volk, part of Zimmerman/Volk Associates, which analyzes residential markets in cities across the country, will discuss the latest updates to the firm’s Lafayette report, which was first released almost 20 years ago. The report showed the potential market for housing in the downtown area and surrounding neighborhoods.

The firm has completed a third update, which indicates the demand is still there in the form of 950-1,205 units over five years with 190-241 units that could be leased or sold within a year.

That demand, however, is outpacing supply. 

“More activity has happened in downtown Lafayette from when I started the first study in 2006,” Volk said. “You have been really doing the right things. It may not meet our absorption projects, but that’s not very typical (to do so). There are a lot of challenges, but at least you know there’s a lot of potential for new downtown housing development.”

Providing that supply, however, has its challenges.

It’s been about six months since the latest project, The Monroe, opened and added 70 units to the downtown mix. Other projects have since been discussed and are in motion, including a mid-sized project along Congress Street and the project Rock ‘N’ Bowl owner Johnny Blancher is reworking near the Lafayette City Court buildings.

Interest rates and high construction costs are slowing any activity, but other projects could gain momentum at some point, said Kevin Blanchard, CEO of the Downtown Development Authority. The old Coburn’s building could be redeveloped and have a residential component, and talks are advancing for a hotel downtown.

“All the advice I’ve gotten from folks is, like, do not rest,” Blanchard said. “People are putting deals together right now. When the time is right and interest rates start to drop, then they can pull the trigger.”

The infrastructure

The lift station that went in two years ago along the northern edge of downtown added about 500 additional gallons per minute of sewer capacity.

Growth pushed that to capacity, and now the lift station issue is back and has the potential to stunt downtown’s growth yet again. Lafayette Utilities System, according to The Current, is planning a $10 million investment in the center of Lafayette to upgrade the sewer system but has yet to break ground on it.

Walkability in downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods are also key issues, said Rachel Holland, DDA’s director of development and planning. There are several people living downtown who are either students or professors at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and walking improvements would make downtown a more viable residential option.

The report also noted that empty nesters are making up the second-biggest market for downtown living, behind young adults. Developers should explore housing alternatives, including duplexes and townhomes.

“We know that people are looking to buy downtown,” Holland said. “There are really only rental options right now. So I think introducing townhouses or a condo-style development could attract different types of people.”

Land, land, land

That property Speck pointed out to the Lafayette audience? Twice Lafayette Consolidated Government sought proposals on parcels it owns, and both tries gained no traction.

LCG owns only one parcel that fronts Jefferson Street. The other two are privately owned.

Then there’s Blancher’s project. Convent & Lee, the massive 208-unit plan that would have occupied the lots of the current city court offices and been a joint project with the City of Lafayette, is now dead, but Blancher says he is optimistic something will happen on the lots he owns behind city court.

He has no details yet on what it could be. He will likely have to start over, including refiling for the Housing and Urban Development 221(d)(4) loan that is used for multifamily projects.

“Look, I’m going to redevelop my property sooner or later,” he said. “I am optimistic I will end up doing a great project. I don’t want to say I’m pessimistic, but I’m going to proceed with caution as to whether or not there’s city involvement and to what level.”

Another is the site near the federal courthouse that developer Cliff Guidry planned two 20-story high-rise towers that would have been the tallest buildings in Lafayette.

Commercial real estate agent Tim Skinner bought the land, just under an acre, in late 2022 and is still weighing options with what to do with it.

Early efforts to lure a hotel there were unsuccessful, he said, and now he’s hoping to use it for either mixed use or straight residential. His lots are connected to six others that are privately owned but, if combined, would total about 2.5 acres that would have frontage along Congress Street.

“I’ve talked to almost every architect in town, and everybody seems to almost talk you out of doing anything because of the cost right now,” Skinner said. “The highest and best use for that lot would be high density, which means you need to go vertical. That’s just hard to do right now.”

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